An exhilarating piece of music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux3cywkHyes ) takes me back from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Bosphorus.
Here I am, roaming on the bank of the fascinating strait, soothed by the blend of the song, a delightful mix of Ottoman tradition and Armenian and Sephardic Jewish music. Constantinople. The old Byzance. I cannot help but dream. But soon, an unknown voice rouses me from my woolgathering: “When I arrived at my half European, half Asiatic destination, I found myself in a new world”.
It is the 13th of July 1826. A gentleman, expressing himself in eloquent French, is now walking by my side as night is falling on the old town, Stambul. Carl Gustaf Löwenhielm, is his name, he was appointed residential minister of Sweden to Turkey and Consul General in the Levant two years ago. On our way to the Swedish embassy, where I am kindly invited to an unexpected dinner, the man tells me about his life. He is obviously pleased to meet someone familiar with Uppsala where he had studied for four years between 1803 and 1807, before beginning pursuing an education and career in the military. By the time we arrived in front of a lovely small pavilion, his residence, I already know a lot about him.
His first diplomatic mission is to conclude a trade agreement with the Turks to guarantee free passage for Swedish ships to and from the Black Sea and also to improve commercial relations. But the negotiations are proceeding slower than expected. He confides to me that he was quite close to Prince Oscar, son of the Swedish king Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, the French officer. I inquire about his family. He gazes at me bitterly. His marriage is turning out badly and will be dissolved soon. No children. His wife used to be the mistress of Oscar with whom she has a daughter. Moving on quickly to another subject, my eyes catch sight of a drawing’s portfolio hanging off on a lovely Gustavian sofa. Let’s talk about this pastime of his. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUXD9-MXqCA&list=PLF925943E99009307
I am pleasantly surprised to learn that Carl Gustaf is an artist. An amateur, of course, predisposed to it because of its own personality and aptitudes and fostered by his aristocratic upbringing. Both painting and diplomacy required education and talent. My host seems to dispose of them both.
The 36 year old man is taking advantage of his position as an ambassador to the Sublime Porte to travel throughout the Ottoman Empire. It is quite clear that Carl Gustaf has an eye to depict the landscape, countryside or townscape, and to transpose it with various colours and atmospheres.
We spend quite a long time looking at his creations, mainly water-colours. He likes representing the shores of the Bosphores and the town’s surroundings, while also embarking on artistic expeditions outside Constantinople.
Carl Gustaf is particularly interested in topographical drawings and is sensitive to classical antiquity. While highlighting the landscape, his paintings are a snapshot of the tranquil reality, where the sun is always shining. He captures the picturesque. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEfR0rOhIFk&list=PLF925943E99009307
The romantic interest in the “mysterious East”, this western fascination for the Orient, swamps me. When I decide to stay at the embassy to spend some more time in Constantinople, captivated by its splendor and mysteries, I come upon Carl Gustaf´s diary, piling up his impressions. I cannot resist glancing at it furtively. It’s mainly written in French.
April 17th, 1826: “take a walk and draw all day long. A splendid weather, mild and calm”. May 19th, 1826 : “writing, reading, drawing and taking a walk as usual…”
For a deeper glimpse into Turkey as it was in the 1820´s, you should come to the Department of Maps and Pictures where around 250 paintings by Carl Gustaf Löwenhielm are kept. The pictures used in this article are to be found in our database and his diary is also preserved at the Manuscript Department.